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Jamaican Sexism Flexes Its Muscles as Gender Gaffes Stir Public Outrage

AJ Nicholson, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Jamaica. Photo by The Commonwealth, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

AJ Nicholson, minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Jamaica. Photo by The Commonwealth, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Jamaica is known for many things: its music and culture, the legacy of its heroes, its literary contributions, its dominance of international track and field — even the homophobic pronouncements of its politicians. Most recently, the misogynistic ideas of some of Jamaica's leading men, in both the public and private sectors, has entered the spotlight thanks to two events: the decision of one prestigious boys’ school not to allow women to attend its annual dinner and an off-colour remark about rape by a member of parliament.

Addressing the first incident on his blog, writer Kei Miller drew a connection between power and gender in Jamaica:

[…] it’s rather incredible to me that so many Jamaicans are dismissive of recent and fair objections being levied at one of our oldest high schools – Kingston College – whose Old Boys have decided, despite recent progressive policies, to revert to an older and regressive policy and host an all-male annual dinner.

Had Kingston College invited only alumni to the dinner, it would likely have been a non-issue. The result — a mostly male gathering — would have been largely the same, as most Jamaican high schools are segregated by gender. What happened, though, was different. Non-alumni were welcome at the dinner, provided they were men. 

University lecturer Dr. Carolyn Joy Cooper criticized the dinner's ban on women with a little gay-panic humor, joking that the decision revealed the organizers’ latent homosexuality:

I have great respect for the KC old boys who have proudly come out and made their sexual preference absolutely clear. The female sex is not for them.

Given Jamaica's reputation for homophobia, the joke naturally upset some people. Miller, for instance, thinks it may have missed its mark, which was the bigger picture:

…Though I know her politics are much more complicated than that, it kinda grieves my heart to see sexuality being used – even if jokingly – as a way to send coded insult to the Old Boys who really do deserve insulting. It reinscribes the idea of homosexuality as something worthy of public shame and ridicule. Perhaps in this, Cooper’s irresponsible joking is not wildly different from AJ Nicholson’s flexi-rape joke. Both represent humour at the expense of vulnerable people.

This brings us to the parliamentarian. In a debate about the proposed flexi-work bill, Senator Marlene Malahoo-Forte suggested that women leaving work after dark could be at higher risk for sexual assault. Arnold Joseph Nicholson, who heads the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, responded with a flippant quip about “flexi-rape”. Nicholson eventually withdrew his comments under the insistence of the senate president and was pressured into making a more public apology, when faced with widespread criticism over the incident. Miller called it “one of the most unapologetic apologies one could muster”.

Some groups have called for Nicholson's dismissal and his public approval has evaporated after revelations that he sent threatening emails to other female senators over the incident. Twitter was full of commentary, a lot of which came from female users who found Nicholson's behavior disgraceful:

One Twitter user noted that women's groups and female politicians are strangely silent on the subject:

These two seemingly unrelated events have managed to bring into sharp focus the enduring patriarchal attitude that still makes some Jamaican men think they have the right to undermine women, objectify them, and discuss them in purely sexual terms. Thanks to Internet platforms, fortunately, those without the power and resources of institutions and the state are able to discuss this issue in ways that would have been impossible a decade ago.

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